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Try for a moment, as you empty the bulging recycle bin on your e-mail desktop, to spare a kind thought for the e-mail marketer.

If that seems hard as you banish another batch of come-ons for faux Rolex watches and male-enhancement products to cyber-oblivion, then you see part of the problem that purveyors of legitimate products face.

The Internet may be the cheapest, most versatile marketing tool retailers have ever devised, but those very attributes have clogged it with spam - everything from annoying electronic junk mail to attempts to steal personal information.

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"It's not only security but it also has to do with just an inconvenience," says Danielle Fournier, general manager and regional director for McAfee Canada, a leading Internet security firm.

"Quite honestly it's more bothersome because once you open up one, there tends to be many more following."

While they bemoan the rising number of spam e-mails filling their inboxes, many Canadians probably can't help opening some of them.

"I believe there's just more of a curiosity," says Fournier.

"With all the reports we provide, with all the technology we provide, with all of the services provided, it continues to grow."

But where does that attitude leave legitimate e-mail marketers?

Treading carefully, says Paula Skaper, past president of the Vancouver-based International Internet Marketers Association.

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Skaper, whose firm Kinetics Media specializes in e-mail marketing campaigns, says her industry works hard to distance itself from anonymous mass-mailings designed to evade spam filters.

There's no formal industry consensus on rules for e-mail solicitation, but there is an agreed-upon set of best practices, she says.

"We only do permission marketing," Skaper says of companies like hers. "There must be a clear opt-in to receive the kind of information that we're sending."

That means you need to have signed up with a company - perhaps through its website or while registering a product you bought - to get its e-mails.

Skaper says part of her job is to educate clients that what they're doing is not the electronic equivalent of old-fashioned junk mail.

"We don't want to annoy people," she says. "Otherwise we're just wasting our client's money.

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Skaper says her firm uses a double opt-in process for client e-mail lists. Recipients who've registered to receive e-mails get an e-mail asking them to confirm their permission.

"If you're practising proper permission-based e-mail marketing, whenever you collect information from your customers and they opt in, you're immediately confirming that with an e-mail address," says Skaper.

"You restate what they've just signed up for, and you do that immediately. And you encourage them to add your sender e-mail address to their . . . safe list so the messages get through.

"You let them know it's always going to come from this address. It's a matter of communication."

Skaper's firm sometimes works from rented e-mail lists through a reliable broker or "deployment vendor" who retains control of it through strict usage rules.

She counsels clients against dealing with companies that willing to hand over their lists unconditionally.

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There's a reason for Skaper's prudence. Despite the scourge of spam, e-mail marketing is a mushrooming, lucrative business.

Kinetics Media, which Skaper says has tripled in size in the last two years, sees a 34 per cent opening rate to its permission-based e-mails.

"About a third of people open the messages, and somewhere between four and 12 per cent in general will click through (to the information)," she says.

Skaper's clients, which range from real estate firms to banks and travel companies, like the speed and accuracy of e-mail marketing.

"I can send something out instantaneously on behalf of a company and within 48 hours they know if it's working," says Skaper.

"And I'm doing that without incurring any printing costs or any mailing costs."

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Feedback from recipients reinforces e-mail's effectiveness as a marketing tool.

"When (companies) ask 'How do you want us to talk to you?' the customer's saying, 'Well, e-mail me because I'd rather get stuff in my inbox than have it piled up on my front step.' "It makes life easier, even with all the spam."



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